“Photographs” are not “Photography”

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The idea I’d like to unpack in this article is based on some of the thoughts I’ve had while reflecting on my role when it comes to making photographs. I think that most of my recent writing has been produced in an effort to untangle preconceptions and assumptions that I seem to have been carrying with me through my career so far. Sometimes, and as the case may be here, my desire to frame or reframe ideas around my work can seem a bit obvious or pedantic, like when I wrote about how Street Photography doesn’t need to be “on the street”, or how a portfolio doesn’t need to be a website, but giving structure to my internal monologue has been immensely helpful to my ability to teach these topics in the clearest way to my students.

There’s been something about the way I talk about my “photography” in terms of the way that the specific use of language informs my understanding of what exactly it is I do with my time. For example when showing someone my work I’ll say that “this is my photography” rather than “these are my photographs” which may seem like a subtle difference, but I think the two ideas hold different weight.


Photography describes the process of creating photographs, but I have often used the words kind of interchangeably, and when I picked up on this I wanted to understand how those different understandings can help define exactly which of the two is actually important to what I want to be doing.

A rare photograph of me photographing, taken by David Babaian
A rare photograph of me photographing, taken by David Babaian.

When I think about my aim as a photographer it is to be someone who is engaged in the act of photography; not to be someone who has made photographs. That is to say that the actual images I create are, or feel, often irrelevant to my identity. I don’t identify with the body of work I have made, I don’t look at any of my images as a measure of value in either quality or quantity – my photographs are nice to have, but they aren’t the thing itself; my photographs have very little if anything to do with my photography.

An analogy for my current framework is imagining a gym. Muscles are not exercise, but they may be one of a few desired byproducts of the process of exercise. However if you go to the gym specifically to “buy muscles” you will likely not end up working as hard as you could. However if you go through the motions of exercise for the sake of exercise then you take the pressure off of your ideal end goal and simply embrace a positive habit. The rest may come in time, but the mentality and process towards it becomes far healthier in my opinion.

"Photographs" are not "Photography"

An example of a photographer who seems to embody this method is Thomas Heaton, a landscape artist and Youtuber. The content of his best videos, however, could have nothing whatsoever to do with the images he makes and instead, simply take you on a journey with him into nature. We accompany him as he hikes, climbs, explores the scenery. This in and of itself for him is its own form of reward, and a photograph or two may come out of the experience – but if he did not have the camera he would still have done the majority of those actions, he just wouldn’t have pressed a shutter as well.

I know so many photographers who feel that photography is just pressing the shutter, whereas for me the process of photography effectively ends at the shutter. Everything leading up to that point is what I want to be doing when I think about photography, and everything after that is not really connected to that workflow.

When explained this, way film becomes an obvious medium for my work, as it really doesn’t offer the capacity for much more than pressing the shutter. The photographs themselves don’t really exist in a meaningful way to me for weeks, if not months after the shutter is pressed, which means that the majority of my time “photographing” just looks like very long walks. I could still go on those walks and witness all of the weirdness and surrealism of life that ends up in my pictures, and the camera could have no involvement, but by involving the camera this process becomes photography.


"Photographs" are not "Photography"

This hasn’t always been the case for me, but accepting these ideas on these terms has meant an incredible reduction in the pressure I would often feel to produce pictures. I still experience a lot of stress towards the eventual outcome of my life’s work, but I have a much better understanding that by simply occupying my time with as many interesting experiences as possible those photographs will come about.

The photographs I’ve made which I like best are almost never the ones I have gone out to make, but rather the result of absolutely unexpected, unplannable things that unfold – but I have to go out in order to give myself the best chance of finding them. In this way I can spend a week “doing photography” but not have any images to really show for it; but that doesn’t mean I was any less engaging in photography. I am less stressed about what my next photograph will be like, and simply at peace with the idea that my responsibility as a photographer is to live as an interesting a life as possible.

Where I was once putting a lot of energy into trying to almost force projects, photo-books, photo-stories/essays, and portfolios, I am now confident that with enough time and effort put into simply living life those things will materialise. Rather than starting at the end with how I want, or think a project might look I am free to simply shoot whatever catches my eye, and then when I have amassed more negatives and years I can look at piecing aspects of my work together like a puzzle – but when I reach this point I will likely no longer consider myself a photographer, I will just be someone who used to be a photographer, and now has photographs.

"Photographs" are not "Photography"

These ideas inform my opinion when it comes to understanding what I consider to be “great” images. I actually think that the best photographs often have the least to do with photography. When I think of those outstanding and iconic historic photographs the role of the camera is actually very minimal.

There aren’t many camera “tricks” aside exposing for the subject, making whatever compromises are necessary in the framing, and either timing well or shooting multiple frames. The “rules” of exposure aren’t often played around with; those Kodachrome slide portraits more often than not feature bokeh not as an aesthetic choice but because the low speed of the film demanded a wide-open approach. Slow shutter speeds capturing dramatic motion blur are a compromise necessary to capture that moment at all let alone in that certain way.

The camera as a tool for description, not as a process for aesthetic. There is very little in terms of “photography” going on in those photographs – this is a concept I have been processing and trying to incorporate into my recent photojournalistic work.

"Photographs" are not "Photography"

I think there are so many values held by photographers that are combinations of many different ideas they’ve absorbed over time, and by decoupling various concepts and studying them you can really change the direction you choose to take things.

Moving forward I know I will be far more comfortable with publishing less of my work, spending less time developing, scanning, curating, and instead just shooting. I can spend my time on more travel, meeting more people, engaging with more experiences, and feel confident that the presence of my camera will be enough alongside these things to put a frame around those things eventually, but that there’s no pressure if the only thing I come away with is a story to tell.


"Photographs" are not "Photography"

Taking some time to figure out what a genre could be “made of” is a great way to immerse yourself in that other world without necessarily including a camera. Landscape photography without a camera could just be hiking or camping, street portraiture is just engaging with people, travel photography is just travel. If you are able to do those things and still enjoy them without the pressure of photography then that’s fantastic – and if not then it might be that there’s something else that appeals to you – something more based in what the camera is doing, or what the camera gives to you. And if you find that the camera stops meaning as much then there are any number of other ways to represent something – painting, sculpture, poetry can all replace the role of a camera in describing ones experience of the world.

Thanks for taking the time to read another of my rambles! If you enjoyed my work here you might consider following me on Instagram. I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland. This was definitely one of the harder ideas for me to articulate in words, and even after rereading a few times I’ve found it difficult to know whether or not I’ve successfully communicated the exact points I wanted to. I’m sure I’ve expressed some contentious viewpoints here, and I’m going to be very interested to hear what people have to say about it! I’m hoping for a polite, healthy discussion!

~ Simon


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9 thoughts on ““Photographs” are not “Photography””

  1. Sorry, I admit I couldn’t get to the end of this “work”! Pedantic and self obsessed? Ideological nuance?

    Take pictures and let them speak for themselves..not interested in the thought processes (or angst) of the author.

    Some good pictures though, focus on that!

    Reply
  2. I think you may have summed up many concerns and conflicts I have had; I think I need to read this a few more time though to bring it into clearer focus.
    Thanks

    Reply
  3. Entertaining exercise: Copy the soliloquy above, paste it into a word processor, and use search/replace to replace every instance of “photography” and “photographer” with, say, “breakfast” and “breakfast-eater.” Read the result and evaluate the extent to which it sounds like self-absorbed hipster twaddle. Learn anything?

    Reply
  4. Hi Simon – I read a nice quote from Bill Brandt last week – “photography does not have rules… it’s not a sport.” I too can spend countless hours pondering the nature of photography and I find it great fun. I was standing in a hailstorm yesterday photographing a perfect rainbow with my phone thinking “what is it that I’m doing?” The casual observer might have said, “‘getting soaked and looking like a complete tosser” but for me it was a bit more ethereal. It was really about watching the skies for a few days waiting for an opportunity, placing in image in to the context of a body of work, thinking about how a captured image might then be rendered and shared. As I get better at it I’m finding quite a few similarities with your discoveries it would seem. Once you have technique nailed and you’re confident with your gear (and this can also mean embracing accidents and limitations) it can become more about sharing your vision through the medium of photographic images. But vision and intent I think can change with time. Certainly for me they do – and it’s fun to observe this. Writing about it and sharing ideas helps me with the process. Maybe it’s a bit of a case of “becoming a photographer is what happens while you’re worrying whether you’ll ever become a photographer” Difficult pleasures, and worthwhile. Not stopping is an essential. Good luck!

    Reply
  5. A nice article Simon. It took a little to get my head around it, but that (I think) is what it was designed to do. I was panicking a bit recently – being furloughed I have been going for walks almost daily and always at least 1 camera (film or digital) and my phone. To start with I was pressing the shutter fairly regularly, just over the last week I have not pressed the shutter as much hence the panic. However, reading this article made me realise actually not pressing the shutter is nothing to be worried about. I am enjoying being a photographer not taking photographs its the process not the end result. Thank you so much for putting into writing what I have been experiencing. Keep up the good work – I have enjoyed all of your articles I Have read.

    Ian R

    Reply
  6. Wow Simon! You have very eloquently put into words some feelings that I have been having for a very long time. As both a photographer and potter, I find that I’m more focused on process and that good product is just the result of enjoyment and care in the former. Thanks for sharing these inspirational words and giving more shape to my thoughts on the subject!

    Reply

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